Anna Breslaw makes her YA fiction debut later this year with Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here, which follows Scarlett Epstein, a snarky, funny teenager, famous online for her fan fiction, and totally invisible at her high school. But when her favorite TV show (and muse) is canceled, she returns to writing fiction — but instead of TV characters, her subjects are her fellow high school students.
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here hits shelves April 19 — but EW is thrilled to reveal an exclusive sneak peek at the prologue and first four chapters, below:
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. After five years, six seasons, ten Emmy nominations, and countless amazing experiences on and off the set with the family I’ve made here, the Lycanthrope High story has come to its conclusion. While I have no control over the decision, I could not be more proud of the extraordinary talent both in front of and behind the cameras who have collectively made this show what it is.
Write to the network if you want, but you know they’re just a bunch of old white dudes in suits, right? All I’m gonna say is that they may or may not have almost fired me for making Connor Korean-American.
But look. You know that from the very beginning, I’ve been thinking about you guys—the superfans, the cosplayers, the people who wrote letters to me saying that Luke’s death helped them with their own grief, or that Gillian and Reginald inspired them to end their abusive relationship, or that Marissa and Connor were the first complex main characters who looked like them that they’d seen on one of their favorite shows. That stuff means more to me than any critic’s opinion.
And in my own bittersweet way, I’m glad to end here, while the characters are beloved and the plot hasn’t jumped the shark. I don’t want the show to overstay its welcome. It’s kind of cool! Like the James Dean of shows, very much including the bisexual experimentation. (Wiki it.)
When you think about it, the ending is somewhat natural— graduation day was near, and then they were gonna go off to college. It’s uncertain, yes, but life is uncertain. (Tangentially related: As most of you read on my blog, I have a new baby, and it turns out babies happen to be relatively high maintenance.)
It’s been an incredible run, more than my seventeen-year- old nerdy self could have hoped for in his wildest dreams, and you guys are to thank for making it happen. I made this show for you. And don’t worry. I’m counting the minutes—perhaps when the kid’s older, anywhere between being a tiny poop monster and a thirty-four-year-old finally moving out of our basement—until I can make another one for you.
Not to get sappy, but all I did was tell people how to hold the camera. It’s you guys who gave it a soul.
Be back soon. Promise.
—John St. Clair, creator of Lycanthrope High
“IT ABSOLUTELY SUCKS,” Avery says, beating out Jeffrey Dahmer for the understatement of the century. (His, after his arrest, was “I really messed up this time.”)
Ave jams an impossible amount of textbooks into her backpack. She’s the only one in the whole hallway who cares that the bell is ringing. It’s kind of her personal brand.
She continues, “It one hundred and fifty percent sucks. But—God, Scarlett, you look awful.”
My eyes are puffy, and my throat’s so sore from crying that I can barely tell her “No s—.” I stayed up all night with the rest of the heartbroken Lycanthrope community, trying to strategize a way to get it back on the air. The first stage is denial, right? That’s half of us, writing passionate letters to the network. The other half—people I used to see on Tumblr every day—are blackballing the show and moving on.
Not only was I one of the more popular fic writers on the board, but I’d livetweet the show every week at eight, amassing a pretty damn big following for a non-famous teenage girl who wasn’t posting butt selfies. Every Monday from eight to nine p.m., I actually mattered. That was like my real life—all the stuff around it was just temporary, unfortunate background noise.
The worst part is, the sixth season finale didn’t wrap anything up—it was some dumb monster-of-the-week about Greg’s robot stepmom. We don’t even know who ends up with whom. Even if John St. Clair tells us at some convention, which is what show runners generally do, it’s not the same. He made the characters so real that it’s simply unfair just to cut us off like this.
“I know you’re bummed, but this means, maybe, just hear me out, that you can … invest in real people, not fictional people”—Avery sees what I am about to say and cuts me off— “and not a bunch of randos on a message board who are probably all sketchy old men.”
“You really need to stop DVRing To Catch a Predator.”
Ave should be more supportive, considering we first became friends when she sat behind me in AP English. I worked on Lycanthrope fanfics in my notebook and caught her reading over my shoulder. She reads for fun a lot; she’s maybe the only person at school who does that as much as I do. But other than the architectural skill she displays by managing to fit every math textbook ever written in her book bag, Avery isn’t at all artsy or creative. I think that’s why we get along. Combined, we’d be Supergirl.
Ave is the only reason I can sit at the lunch table with the Girl Geniuses, a small clique of overachievers who run on Adderall and fear and have gears you can always see turning. No wonder they’re maladjusted; it’s uncomfortable seeing people try that hard, you know? Like, we don’t want to see your gears. Put them away. It’s their parents’ fault for f logging them like the workhorse in Black Beauty. Take the shivering mess of Jessicarose Fallon, for instance. This summer her parents sent her on a “volunteer” trip to Argentina for a cool $5K so she could write a heart-wrenching college essay about how she ran out of Luna bars on day three. They also named her Jessicarose, so it’s hard to fault her for having the eyes of a crazy person. In fact, a lot of the Girl Geniuses have a mash-up of two names, like Tanya-Lynn Gordonov. Perhaps their parents were on Adderall when they named them.
If you were wondering, I have a shining 2.9 GPA out of … I guess 4.0? Infinity? Whatever Jessicarose Fallon has.
“Okay, fine,” Ave relents. “But have you considered maybe they’re all just your Tyler Durden?”
I’m about to shoot back some sassy answer when Ave jerks her head in a quick spasm toward the end of the hall, where Gideon Maclaine is leaning against a locker and messing with his iPhone. He’s alone, as usual.
“Look! A f lesh-and-blood human,” Ave says pointedly.
“You’ve been obsessed with him since the second grade!” She grins. “Maybe he can replace Lycanthro—”
“Don’t say it. I can’t even hear the title right now; it’s too hard.”
While the other girls at school threw themselves into boyfriends, I threw myself into shows. I started with the ones that are Taken Very Seriously, starring conf licted antiheroes who cheat on their wives and curse a lot, occasionally at the same time. But the problem was, I never really watched an episode and thought: I want to mess around with these characters, bend their world, go inside their heads. I usually just thought: Sure. I get it. Men do coke and/or have sex with their twentysomething brunette mistresses but still love their kids or whatever. I don’t need to do a deep dive into that guy’s head. I’m not someone that show thinks about.
Then I found Lycanthrope High, and everything totally changed. That sounds melodramatic, because I still have arms and legs, but everything else totally changed. It’s about a boarding school called Pembrooke Academy where the student body is not-so-secretly 50 percent werewolves, and a scholarship student named Gillian finds out she’s a loup-orateur, the only girl in her generation who can settle the war between werewolves and humans. There’s a diverse cast of wisecracking misfits and love triangles and saving the world and all that good stuff.
Most of all, though, it’s obvious—not just on the show, but in interviews and podcasts and at conventions—that John St. Clair thinks about me. Or, you know, girls like me. Amazingly, a straight white dude is designing his show specifically for bored, sexually frustrated high school girls (and some guys) who get straight Cs because their pointlessly large imaginations are uncontrollable tsunamis that wipe out any structure in their paths. For once, we don’t have to adjust our expectations to wedge ourselves into an audience. We are the target audience. I love Lycanthrope and the characters down to my bones, in a way I can’t even articulate, the way you love your family or your best friend.
Avery sat through one episode, one time, and thinks she gets the appeal but it’s “not her style.” Meanwhile, she made me and my mom, Dawn, sit through all thirteen episodes of Cosmos, and we were bored to tears, but on the bright side, we agreed on something for once. Dawn—a person who named her daughter after Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, a person who watches reruns of Sex and the City so religiously that when I was little I used to confuse the theme for the eleven o’clock news—thinks Lycanthrope High is lame.
“I’m just trying to get you to look on the bright side!”
“Did you hit your head? We live in New Jersey. There is no bright side. If you want to use that expression here, you have to say, ‘Look on the smog.’”
Melville, New Jersey, is the perfect place to have a pretty mediocre life for, like, seventy years and then die. In fact, that might be on the Welcome to Melville sign you see when you get off the turnpike at Exit 6A, right above population: 5,500 empty funyuns bags, 1 bored jewish girl.
As for Melville High School, where Ave and I go—it’s pretty much the opposite of magic. The English language isn’t innovative enough to have a word for that, really, other than some four-letter ones I’m not going to deploy because I’m a ~*~LaDy~*~*. MHS is all guys with neck tattoos and girls who post Kim Kardashian quotes on Instagram, and the 60 percent of us who actually graduate end up working at Target or the gas station or something.
No thanks to Mr. Barnhill, our guidance counselor, whose soaring, inspirational college admissions advice is to “be realistic.” (Some real Chariots of Fire stuff right there.) When Mr. Barnhill asked me how my extracurriculars were, I didn’t say anything, because as far as school is concerned, I’m the president of the Misanthrope Society. Also the only member. He told me to consider community college, and I left with a pamphlet about identifying herpes.
You know the kind of person who rolls his or her eyes at a TV show or a book and goes, “That would never happen”? I’m the opposite: I walk around all day waiting for a reason to suspend my disbelief. There’s a ghost in the girls’ locker room? Great; let’s find out if she’s a murdered former prom queen out for revenge. The entire town of Melville, New Jersey, is directly over the Eighth Circle of Hell? Awesome. I shotty the crossbow.
When school lets out, I race back home to check my permanently open Lycanthrope tabs. As I’d feared, the boards have been swarmed with the worst kind of invasive awfulness: TV critics looking to interview “heartbroken cult fans” for articles. (No thanks—I’ve never seen fandom portrayed in any mainstream place as anything other than a weird cult, and fangirls as brainless idiots.) There are also countless culture bloggers shamelessly spamming the board with links to their immediately-churned- out “Best Lycanthrope High Episodes” roundups. Here and there, I do see some fix-its—fanfiction revisions of the end of the series—but none by my friends.
My best friends in the Lycanthrope fandom community are called the BNFs (Big Name Fans), and they’re fic writers too: xLoupxGaroux, DavidaTheDeadly, and WillianShipper2000. Fandom is weird like that, especially on Tumblr. You don’t have to know anyone’s first name, but you’ll be as sad for them when their mom dies as you’d be sad for someone IRL.
I gravitated to them through their super-high-quality fics. They were the top-read Lycanthrope fic writers on the board; their most popular fics had around 10,000 views. xLoupxGaroux appeals to the smart, snarky gay demo who dies for William/ Connor slash with only occasional glimmers of sentimentality. DavidaTheDeadly writes uplifting inner monologues from each character’s perspective, which gives people a break from the frequent super-darkness of the show. And Willian, a high school freshman in Kansas, excels at maybe the toughest and most oversaturated fanfic domain: your typical OTP (one true pairing) hetero romance. She splits her time between Lycanthrope and One Direction fandom, and she sometimes comes off totally basic, but her swoonworthy lines get Tumblr-ed to death. Some Lycanthrope fans can be judgy about mainstream fandoms like 1-D, but I’m not: Anything that could get a sixteen-year-old girl from some sh–ty town a six-figure book deal is something I’d scream proudly about from the rooftops.
xLoupxGaroux: Where have you BEEN.
Scarface: I’m sorry!!
I start crying. I’m not quite sure why. I think I’m afraid this is the last time we’ll all talk or something. Nevertheless, I manage to type:
Scarface: I’m crying, hahaha!
xLoupxGaroux: you are not literally crying.
DavidaTheDeadly: we don’t all have hearts of stone like you, Loup
DavidaTheDeadly: last week I cried every day. moaning myrtle of the ladies’ bathroom at work basically.
Davida and Loup are both older than me and have office jobs, which means they can—and do—Gchat all day but have to be careful with the open browsers.
DavidaTheDeadly: the thing is though…we didn’t know it was ending, and we don’t have source material for fics about the final episodes. oh brb boss is coming
xLoupxGaroux: What is it today? “Ride of the Valkyries”?
DavidaTheDeadly: “Single Ladies.”
Whenever the editor in chief at Davida’s magazine job approaches someone’s cube, Davida hums loudly to warn them to X out of anything inappropriate.
DavidaTheDeadly: haha btw scarface, pls thank your mom for e-mailing her confession and let her know it’ll be in the april issue
The delightful nugget to which she is referring: “I wrote a text to my ex-boyfriend: ‘I’ll pick up some condoms with the bread bowls.’ But I actually sent it to my daughter! Oops! —Dawn E., 35.”
Scarface: I can’t believe we don’t even know if Gillian ends up with William or Connor.
WillianShipper2000: Uhh Willian is obvs the OTP!
Willian’s ride-or-die for that pairing. Her Tumblr background is a shot of the two of them with “Now you have all of me” written on it in cursive, from that episode where William and Gillian had a big fight because he wouldn’t take her to prom. He wanted her to have a nice, normal teenage experience. She started crying and said he was letting the wolf part—the part that didn’t like responsibility—take over. The next day he showed up at her front door with a gift, a German shepherd puppy. “You were right,” he said. “But now you have all of me.”
(Of course, Gillian realizes later on, when William leaves town after prom, that it was the guy part of him that decided to do it, not the wolf part. And the dog, Nina, dies bravely saving Marissa from a possessed frat house in the fourth season finale. I cried for a week straight.)
Scarface: Have you guys read any of the fix-its?
xLoupxGaroux: Some—none are particularly satisfying.
We agree that none of us want to give up writing Lycanthrope fic and that even though the finale sucked, moving forward we’ll stick with the canon storyline. We all promise to think on it, and nobody will jump ship until we’ve got some ideas.
“My children,” I begin solemnly at the head of the Parkers’ dinner table.
The first time I had dinner at Avery’s house, in sixth grade, her parents asked me to say grace in earnest. But after I fumbled secularly through it, the BS “grace” became a recurring joke.
I clear my throat. “I dreamed I was walking on the beach side by side with the Lord. When I looked back, there were two sets of footprints, but other times there was just one.”
Ashley, Avery’s sister and the bane of my existence, rolls her eyes. I ignore her.
“I asked the Lord why this would be. He replied, ‘During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I drop-kicked you.’”
The tops of Avery’s parents bowed heads shake with silent laughter.
“Carried you. Carried you, is what I meant. Amen.” “Amen,” Avery and her parents say. Ave’s mom looks at Ashley expectantly, and she reluctantly mutters it too.
Ashley’s a popular senior at MHS. She and her friends have spent the last nine years making fun of me for wearing thrift- store clothes (they weren’t cool yet), bringing weird wholesale Sam’s Club chocolate milk to lunch unlike everybody else’s normal Nesquiks, and the million other tiny indicators kids can sniff out poorness with. The most glaring example of this was in second grade, when all the popular girls had Double Stuf and I had some cheaper fake-Oreo brand; I’d scrape all the cream off one cookie and put it in another, then throw out the dry, empty cookie and eat the homemade Double Stuf one. One day, Natalia and Ashley sat across from me and stared as Ashley whispered unnecessary narration into Natalia’s ear like I was a nature documentary. Look, then she scrapes the cream off, then she puts it in the other cookie, then she throws the first cookie out, then …
Since I became friends with Avery and close with her parents, the teasing has been like a long game of chicken: Was I going to rat on her, or was she going to stop siccing her Ugg- booted henchwomen on me? So far, neither has happened. Ave just stays out of it.
Even after nine years of torture, though, Ashley’s prettiness still stuns me like a manta ray. She looks like a Disney princess, pale with fiery red hair and a perfect ski jump nose, and stops just short of being too beautiful, as if God designed her to provide a believable photo for catfishing people. Ave is pretty too, but she’s like a wilted version of Ashley with braces and slightly duller hair. If they had been fetal twins, Ashley definitely would’ve consumed Avery for nutrients, and all that’d be left of Ave would be a tumor with a few teeth in it.
Ave’s mom gets up with some plates. “Salmon, anybody?” She explains to me, “We’re doing the Grain Brain diet, but I think I have some spelt crackers in the cupboard if you want.”
“Thanks, I’m okay.”
“Have you read about that? Wheat, carbs, and sugar destroy brain cells. Even quinoa,” she says, glancing at Avery’s dad quickly to make sure she recited it correctly. Professor Parker teaches a graduate class on nutrition at Princeton. The only noise at the table is the oppressive clinking of silverware. They’re the total opposite of me and Dawn—we’re either screaming at each other or laughing hysterically, big emotions that ricochet off the walls of our apartment.
“Little late for me, I think,” I reply.
“Scarlett, you know you’re very bright,” Professor Parker says brusquely, which is how he says most things, even compliments.
Ashley lets out a sharp breath of air from her nose, a mean, soundless laugh. Her mom gives her a warning glare.
“Listen, I understand that you don’t care about doing well in school right now, but there are a handful of colleges known especially for their exemplary creative-writing programs. Just get that GPA up, and your writing will speak for itself. You’re very talented,” he continues.
I feel my face burning, especially considering I haven’t really written since the show went off the air. The Parkers make everything sound so purposeful, as if I set out To Write, or to Be a Writer. Writing is just the only thing that makes me feel like a real person, not the tap-dancing ref lection of myself that I am around other people. Until Lycanthrope High ended, I’d find ways to write all day at school, like on the backs of handouts in class or hidden in the stacks of the school library between American History (a–p) and American History (p–z). It didn’t seem odd or unique to me that by the time sophomore year was over, I’d written a novel-length fic.
Besides the BNFs, Avery was the only person I told, and she talked me into letting her read it. Of course she told Professor Parker, and then he read it, and I was super-embarrassed and mad at Ave because it had all kinds of teenage hedonism in it and what have you. And when he finished, he called Dawn and told her that I had an immense talent and there were creative arts high schools specifically for students like me and he’d send over some pamphlets. Dawn was so pissed—she said he was trying to give me “champagne taste on a beer budget.”
The truth is, part of why I started writing is that it’s one of the few activities that doesn’t require any expensive helmets or gear or pay-by-the-hour instructors. And Dawn’s right, we can’t afford any of those schools Professor Parker mentioned, but I can’t say stuff like that to the Parkers, because underneath this conversation, they know it, and they know I know it, and articulating it would just make things weird. I already think sometimes that I perform for them a little too much, constantly trying to be funny and charming, like I’m singing for my supper or something.
Instead, I try to stop blushing and shrug like zero s—s given.
“Frankly, I think MHS is a bad fit for both of you,” says Mrs. Parker, and she gives Avery a pointed look. Freshman year, Avery’s parents made her go to a fancy, expensive boarding school in Massachusetts. She hated it there, but they refused to let her come home until she resorted to drastic measures: A few days before summer break, she tagged along with some girls in her hall to get their belly buttons pierced. One not-so-accidental crop top later, Avery was matriculated at MHS for sophomore year.
As Ave’s parents start grilling her about SAT prep, Ashley’s phone chimes with a text, and she snatches it off the table.
Kevin Rice, Avery mouths at me. That would be Ashley’s latest conquest, who graduated MHS last year but eschewed college in favor of landing a record deal with his screamo band. I forget the name. It’s like Burgermaggot, or Juicewater, or some other two-word gibberish that sounds like you’re having a stroke when you say it.
Ashley beams as she reads the text message. You can practically hear the cartoon bluebirds chirping around her head. He wears eyeliner, for God’s sake.
“Light of my life. Fire of my loins,” I say quietly, and watch Avery snort gratifyingly into her salmon. Professor Parker stif les a laugh, but Ashley sees his eyes are squinty and smiling.
“Dad, you’re being annoying.”
He straightens himself out.
“It’s not even him anyway,” says Ashley, then a little quieter: “You assholes.”
“Language, Ashley Nicole,” Mrs. Parker says on autopilot. “Buttholes,” she says, then gets up and storms to her room.
If Kevin’s out, that means she has someone else in rotation. Ashley, as everyone at MHS knows, has a pattern. She goes out with a different guy every other week, and every time it ends, it’s The Most Dramatic Thing That’s Ever Happened. She winds up in the girls’ bathroom crying, smoking a wrinkled Virginia Slim she stole from her mom’s purse, then covering it up by spraying enough Gap Dream to choke livestock. Ave once went in right after her, and she almost had an asthma attack.
Ashley, Avery says, then swears to Never Love Again (she’s one of those every-first-letter-capitalized kinds of feelings-havers) and Focus on School and Cheerleading and How Hashtag-Blessed She Is until some other boy who has a car asks her if she wants to “chill.” Then they make out in the back row of The Even Faster & Even Furiouser and she comes home with her shirt on inside out, In Love Again.
After Avery and I help clear the table, we go to her room so she can “tutor me in math,” otherwise known as “read Rookie and play F-Marry-Kill while drinking seven hundred Diet Cokes from the mini-fridge.”
As we pass Ashley’s closed door, we hear a pealing laugh. Even her laugh is perfect.
“Who’s the new dude?” I ask.
“I have no idea, Scarlett,” Ave informs me in the sweetly patient tone she always uses when I’m looking for Ashley intel, like how you might talk to a three-year-old. “I’m not on whatever review board she presents her biweekly meat to.”
“You know who your sister reminds me of?”
Ave nods, waiting.
“Patience. Hot, popular valedictorian. Secretly a three-thousand-year-old demon bent on world destruction.”
That’s one of the things I liked most about the Lycanthrope universe: Everyone who is beloved here, you can bet they’re evil there. That works in reverse too. John took trope-y archetypes and turned them upside down; nobody’s ever what you’d expect them to be.
Ave humors me. “What happens to her?”
“She gets beheaded by a giant pair of ancient scissors.”
“Yeah, they’re the only thing that can—just forget it, okay?”
As close as Ave and I are in some ways, there’s a layer of our friendship way underneath where we split apart. She lives inside rules, angles she can draw with a protractor or determine with her graphing calculator. Sometimes I miss having a best friend who totally gets me.
Gideon’s been in the same cl ass as me since pre-k, the chubby boy in the XL Old Navy polo sitting way in the back, doodling manga on the back of his English tests, but like me, he’s invisible.
My crush on him began in second grade, which is not quite as creepy as it sounds. It was circumstantial, initially—my dad spent afternoons working on his book, and Dawn’s shift at TGI Fridays started at two p.m. Mrs. Maclaine offered to pick me up with Gideon and watch me after school. Neither of us were outgoing, and at the center of both of our friendlessness was an overlap, like a Venn diagram: He was weird because he was shy, and I was weird because I was poor.
Initially, the arrangement was cool only because Gideon’s family is rich. They live in a big house, similar to the ones Dawn cleans, and his dad’s a plastic surgeon in the city. We could hang out in his giant rec room, or f loat in the swimming pool, or plunk in front of the f lat-screen TV while devouring his mom’s homemade snacks. (That alone was a treat. The Maclaines eat farm-to-table; the Epsteins eat freezer-to-table.)
As I got older, I became more embarrassed about how Dawn was always twenty minutes late to pick me up, smelling like mozzarella sticks, with her tchotchke-pinned apron slung over the passenger seat. Then I’d feel guilty for dreading it. That was when I first started writing, trying to unravel feelings I couldn’t really talk about.
By eighth grade, Gideon was still a foot shorter than every other boy in class; he trudged and wove through the hallway like a Frogger nobody paid attention to. I still got straight Cs and had no idea how to talk to other people. School was just a forced, lame interlude between our real worlds, our various obsessions, and our friendship. We both watched Lycanthrope religiously. We’d even Gchat after each episode, incredulous about what we’d just seen—but I never told him about my fanfic friends. I was afraid that would cross some invisible weirdness line.
The turning point was the swelteringly hot summer between eighth and ninth grade, the year our parents left books on our beds with titles like Your Body Is Changing and It’s Normal (Not Witchcraft). It was the best summer of my life, probably—the last one before we drifted apart freshman year, for a number of reasons, many of which were established on this one particular day.
We were sitting on the giant leather couch in his cushy central-air-conditioned basement, eating Oreos and watching a stack of old Saturday Night Live “best ofs” from the 1970s that Gideon slowly built up through Christmas and birthday presents every year. Gideon was the only person I could share that kind of comfortable silence with, without feeling compelled to make dumb jokes to fill it.
Neither of us understood a bunch of the references on old- school SNL episodes, but it felt dangerous somehow, different from anything we’d seen at the movies. The way Gideon watched John Belushi hurl himself at a wall reminded me of how I’d always read my favorite lines from books out loud, savoring the taste of them. That day, after a particularly long vintage Steve Martin binge, I finally asked him.
“Is this what you want to do?”
He turned bright red. “What do you mean? I don’t know,” he stammered, then asked again, as if he was short-circuiting, “What do you mean?”
“I … sometimes think I want to. But it’s so silly. It’s not a viable career path.”
It really bothered me when he did that, echoed things his dad said to him like they were gospel. As far as Mr. Maclaine was concerned, anything that wasn’t med school wasn’t a viable career path.
“It’s just dumb,” he said softly.
“It’s not dumb at all!”
“It’s something I think about. Not, like, a lot.” In Gideon-speak, that meant obsessively. It went way further than just SNL: Gideon watched every stand-up special on the air, pirated hard- to-find ones off the Pirate Bay, obsessively watched his favorite comics, and—as I realized once when I glanced at him in the middle of a Chris Rock special—took notes on the rhythms of the jokes, how the lineup came together, which segues felt natural and which felt forced.
“Why don’t you try it?” I prodded. “Stand-up?”
“Like at the school talent show, you mean? There’s a reason why I barely say anything in class. Do you really think anyone else from school is sitting here watching this stuff?”
“Maybe some of the teachers. The old ones.”
He smiled and glanced at the stack of DVDs. “You actually kinda remind me of her,” he said. “Gilda.”
“Really?” I stared down at the carpet, crestfallen that he thought my doppelgänger was Roseanne Roseannadanna.
“Yeah. I don’t know. You look sort of like her, I guess—in old pictures, when she’s not in costume. But mostly … you kind of think like her. I don’t know how to say it. Your mind, or your thoughts or something, they’re just different from most people’s.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, goose bumps shooting up my arms and legs. It was, and remains, the best compliment I’d ever gotten.
“I wish I was more like that,” he said quietly.
“So just try it! What’s the harm? It’ll suck for five minutes. School sucks for, like, eight hours a day. It’s nothing.”
“I dunno. I just feel like … it’s all been done. There’s nothing I can do that won’t be a total knockoff of someone who’s better.” He sighed.
I almost blurted out that I felt that way about making up stories, but I bit my tongue at the last minute—too embarrassing. Which is strange, now that I think about it, because before that summer, I’d tell him everything, down to the last unappetizing, unf lattering detail.
I adamantly unstuck my thighs from the leather sofa.
“Well, I’m not letting you start high school without trying it.”
He looked for a second like he was considering it, drumming his long, thin fingers thoughtfully on his denimed thigh. Then he rolled his eyes, giving me his signature wide-eyed You’re being bats— look.
“Where am I gonna go, Scarlett? The Yuk Machine?”
The Yuk Machine was (and still is, because nothing changes here—it’s like a lamer Brigadoon) right off the highway in a strip mall, wedged between a liquor store and a ShopWay.
“This is a terrible, terrible, terrible idea.” Gideon paced in the parking lot, drenching his sneakers in dirty puddles.
I gazed up at the neon sign. The Y was burned out.
“Actually, the Yuk Machine is a terrible idea,” I said. “The Uk Machine is the best idea I’ve ever had.”
Inside the dim club, I fiddled nervously with the neon under-21 bracelet, my Converse squishing against the inexplicably damp f loor. The Yuk Machine would not have seemed out of place on the set of Children of Men. But when I glanced at Gideon, he was beaming like a cancer kid on a pamphlet for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. He was really gonna do this. In a f lash, I was way more nervous than he was.
“Nobody’s, like, parents are here, right?” he whispered.
I got on my toes and twisted to and fro to check for nosy Melville housewives. Instead of him helping me look, I felt him subtly glance me up and down, quick and f luttery like a moth, as if I was some random girl walking by him on the street and we hadn’t been best friends for almost seven years. It gave me a little shiver. In a good way, I realized.
We quietly slunk to a small, wobbly table in the back and waited for the guy onstage to finish his set.
“… alimony, right? I mean … what, even?” the guy was saying. Then he sighed and drank half his beer. Gideon and I winced at each other. At least he wouldn’t be a tough act to follow.
Finally he finished, and the depressed-looking emcee came back on.
“Anybody else want to try their hand at open mic night?” Gideon stood up.
“Oh, good,” the emcee intoned in his f lat, dead voice. “A child.”
Finally, some laughs. Gideon faltered, and for a second I really wanted to kick that guy in the balls. But Gideon ambled up to the stage and jumped on anyway, taking the mic from the emcee.
“Hi, guys,” Gideon said placidly.
I noticed my nervous leg-jiggling was shaking my little table. I stopped, then unthinkingly started biting my inner cheek instead. He took a deep breath.
“So, I’m forty-two, and …”
“Bulls—!” shouted a drunk man in the back.
Gideon smirked, winked, and became someone other than himself. “Thanks, man. Appreciate that. Nice to hear I can still pass for thirty.” He paused for the giggling from various parts of the room.
He unhooked the mic from its stand and walked haltingly across the black stage, seeming to be in deep thought. My heart was pounding. I felt like it was me up there, squinting beyond the lights.
“Uh, so my parents are still together… . Um, thanks?” he said to the smattering of applause. “I’m just gonna point out that you have no idea what kind of marriage you just applauded, by the way.”
Self-effacing laughs. Gideon was totally different up there. Relaxed, calm, self-assured. He even looked a little taller.
“But no, it’s a good marriage. Of course they do fight sometimes,” he continued. “Probably no more than normal. They grew up pretty different. That’s part of it, probably. He grew up Irish-Italian, pretty strict family. He’s been in therapy for a long time and gotten past a lot of that stuff. My mom grew up as a piece of wood and some fabric, and now she’s an ottoman.”
He had said it so casually that you’d almost miss it if it wasn’t so odd. There was dead silence, but he continued deadpan, like he hadn’t said it. Confused laughter from a few parts of the room. I remember literally holding my breath.
“It’s a really romantic story. So my dad fixes old furniture for a living. They locked eyes across the secondhand store one day, and that was it. He had her reupholstered, her legs polished— the kind of ottoman he could see himself marrying. I mean, of course he says that she was already that ottoman on the inside. He just wanted her to have the upholstery to match because she deserved it.”
Then suddenly, I got it. He was being personal; he just wasn’t being literal.
“Isn’t that a romantic story? It’s just like The Notebook, if you swapped out Rachel McAdams for an extraneous piece of living room decor that’s an afterthought to most people.”
Big burst of laughter, sweeping Gideon along with it—but he allowed himself only a chuckle. (“I hate when comedians have that fake little laugh right before a bit, like they’re being swept away by how awesomely funny this memory was. It’s so obvious,” he once mumbled with a mouthful of popcorn as we tore through the miserable collected works of Dane Cook “for research.”)
Gideon stopped, abruptly breaking the rhythm, and stared at a point behind me. His face said: Oh, s—. I twisted around fast.
And there was Mrs. Maclaine, sticking out like a sore thumb in an Hermès scarf (I once called it “a HER-mees,” like herpes, and she corrected me: “an er-MEZ”), standing next to the bar with her arms crossed and looking very, very angry.
Five minutes later, Gideon and I sat on the damp curb, still so adrenaline-jazzed that we barely even cared we were in trouble. Meanwhile, Mrs. Maclaine stood by her BMW and called what seemed like every parent in Melville to let them know that we weren’t going halfsies on a crack pipe. Her hand shook a tiny bit. The only reason she hadn’t peeled off with Gideon was to wait for Dawn to come pick me up.
“I just knew when I came on they were all looking at me like ‘Oh, no, here we go, it’s a kid who’s gonna joke about why high school sucks,’ and I just … I wanted to prove them wrong.”
“You were so, so funny. I was really nervous on your behalf, so I only laughed a few times, but …”
“I wanted to surprise the hell out of everybody in the room, you know?”
I shook my head. “You didn’t.” He looked hurt. “Really?”
“Almost everybody. But I wasn’t surprised at all.”
We both looked out at the gleaming puddles spotting the parking lot in front of us, then beyond, to the freeway. The mutual high was fading, and we were back in our own lives again.
“I hate it here,” he mumbled.
I just stared at the pavement. There was so much I could say. But I just whispered, “Me too.”
He turned toward me, a familiar face but in a really unfamiliar way, his green eyes locked on me. He moved his head closer to mine, and it felt so right that I’d already closed my eyes.
“Gideon Andrew Maclaine, you get in this car right now.” Headlights beamed onto us as a second car swished through the puddles to a crawl. A really sh—y car. Dawn’s car.
As I headed toward it, Mrs. Maclaine tapped on Dawn’s window, her car keys entwined in her perfectly manicured hands—claws, I thought meanly—and Dawn cranked the squeaky handle until the window rolled down.
“Ms. Epstein, I know you’ve got a lot going on,” Mrs. Maclaine said to my mother, her words dripping with disapproval, “but your daughter is out of control, and I certainly can’t parent for you. Please find somewhere else to send Scarlett after school. I’m done.”
With that, she slid into the driver’s seat of her BMW, where Gideon was already waiting. Behind the tinted black glass, I saw he was looking straight ahead, blank. They glided out of the parking lot and onto the highway.
I got in the car. Dawn glared at me, shaking her head.
“Don’t pull this s— with me, Scarlett. I already have enough to deal with.”
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to stay in that moment where Gideon was up there doing something so much better than just fitting in. Or in that moment on the curb when he came close enough that I could see the little f lecks of brown in his green eyes.
Dawn yanked on the stick shift until it got into the right gear, and we headed home.
I stared out at the moon drifting alongside us, darting behind telephone poles and back out, but all I saw was the way Mrs. Maclaine had looked at me, like I was a speck of dirt on her countertop. I thought about how families like the Maclaines have big empty spaces between one another, while families like me and Dawn are smooshed on top of each other, hearing everything the other one’s doing, barely being able to breathe our own air. The Maclaines have the latest, sleekest cars and phones. Nothing’s ever an old model, something straining or squeaking or clicking, nothing about them ever invokes the ultimate embarrassing concept of trying. They have a beautiful silk curtain over the various awkward, rusty embarrassments of being human, and we don’t.
That was the night the Maclaines decided, definitively, that I was a bad inf luence, and also when I realized that Gideon never seemed to contradict them. For the first time, I felt a wedge between us. He wouldn’t stick up for me, I worried, for reasons that felt bigger than our friendship, reasons that had to do with how his mom looked at my mom in the parking lot. And honestly, just thinking that made me mad at him—that worst- case scenario I’d assembled in my mind.
After that, our friendship reversed—the conversations trickled backward into generic pleasantries, then nothing. We went from best friends to just faces that passed each other in the hallway. In the years since we’d drifted apart, Gideon got taller and fitter, going from soft and chubby to large and solid in a man-ish way that makes my hormones do a Mexican hat dance.
I stayed the same. Size six and five-foot-seven in heels (that I do not own). I pretty much wear a couple of different varieties of Old Navy clearance items and my dad’s baggy dress shirts with leggings. I still wear the bras and underwear I’ve worn since, like, seventh grade. And every time I try on bras or jeans in a department store and some saleswoman says they fit me “right,” they feel so tight I can’t breathe, so I size up, because the patriarchy.
I have dark hair and gray-brown eyes. My dad’s Jewish, and Dawn is half Mexican, so I either have skin you’d call olive or skin you’d call “ jaundiced yellowy but with a great dark tan in the summer.” My face is, I don’t know, face shaped? I have to wear glasses, which sucks, but I did pick some bomb pink plastic grandma glasses from the Walmart Vision Center.
Gideon may not broadcast it like I do, but he’s still weird. I know he is. Not like one of those kids who skulks around the band hallway proclaiming their strangeness with T-shirts, but a quiet, unshowy weird, like a slightly crooked picture frame. There’s only one other guy I’ve liked, and it was Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, so that wasn’t gonna end with a spring wedding.
The problem is, even though so much time has gone by since we’ve been friends, whenever I’m around him, I still feel entitled, demanding, and greedy, kind of like Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I might miss social cues occasionally, but even I know that We’re supposed to be together. There’s no reason I shouldn’t come right out and say it, we’ve already wasted a lot of time, and would you like to do everything-except-sex with me? is not an ideal opener.
But mostly it’s scary because thinking about how I felt when I hung out with him is really close to how I feel when I’m writing. Like there are a million pegs but only one that fits in this weird hole, and I’m the hole, and writing is the peg. And Gideon is like another, um … peg. Hi, metaphor.
After skimming the boards—more bad fix-its, more nosy bloggers—I decide to Gchat Loup about my problem.
xLoupxGaroux: What do you mean? You can’t write anymore?
Scarface: i just sit there and stare at the screen like the missing link. I need STRUCTURE. I need you guys!
xLoupxGaroux: Whoa. You weren’t kidding about that PMS, were you, sweetie? Look. It was comfortable writing Lycanthrope fics because it was a pre-built world, with pre-built characters. But maybe you’re having trouble building your own because … well
Scarface: uh yes?
xLoupxGaroux: You don’t seem to get out much. I mean, you have to LIVE in order to write well about life, you know? Tolstoy didn’t spend the first 30 years of his life on the sofa watching Hulu Plus and then out of nowhere write Anna Karenina.
Scarface: i get your point.
xLoupxGaroux: Do something crazy. Go ask out a boy.
Scarface: oh s—. no way.
xLoupxGaroux: Yes way. I will if you will!
Scarface: it’s SO much worse in high school! people talk about who’s dating with such GRAVITY, like they’re talking about wikileaks.
xLoupxGaroux: If you don’t I’ll jump ship, swear to God. Lots of good slash OTPs for that CW show Imaginary Detectives …
Scarface: JESUS. Okay. Fine, I’ll do it.
xLoupxGaroux: Good. Honor system.
I march over to Gideon, my heart pounding, feeling all the blood rush up to my head as I get closer. What the hell. After all, the first time Ted Hughes met Sylvia Plath, she bit him on the cheek, and he married her anyway. And they lived happily ever after.
“Hey,” I say. He looks up from his phone.
“Oh, hey,” he says in that neutral, accommodating voice you get when some stranger’s about to ask you for directions. When I don’t say anything, he asks, “Um, do you, like, need something?”
“It sucks about the show, right?” I blurt out.
“Lycanthrope High.” For the first time, the name of the show sounds dumb and cringey coming out of my mouth, like how I’d imagine it would feel if I said the title of something I wrote myself.
“Oh.” He sort of shrugs. “Sure, I mean, I watched it when it was on. I wasn’t, like, a superfan or anything.” It is hard to tell whether he’s being honest or following the high school commandment of Thou shalt not show thy uncoolness by openly caring about something, which I have never been good at.
“Okay, look. Imagine your life without access to comedy. That’s what it feels like. It’s so boring that even small, momentary escapes are in full Technicolor, like f lirting with an older guy with a big calf tattoo at the gas station. It’s worse than boring, actually, because it’s not like you’re sitting in a waiting room, f lipping through Redbook. I mean, that’s boring, but at least you’ll eventually get called in to your appointment. Whereas life is boring, but unless you’re suicidal or a Scientologist, the waiting and the appointment are the same thing—you know? Isn’t that how you’d feel?”
—What I want to say.
—What I actually say.
Another weird long silence, the opposite of the knowing ones we used to have when we were kids, during which I pray for Aaron Sorkin to swoop in and write my life for the next two minutes (sans the cis-hetero-white-male-on-a-soapbox part).
“I—do you want to do something sometime?”
He looks surprised. “Uh …”
“I know it’s been a really long time since we hung out, but I think we still, you know, we like the same stuff, and we’re both …”
The look in his eyes stops me, like I was about to say “serial killers” or “Coldplay fans.” S—. Come on, try again. I can be articulate. Go.
“You know, like how you and I both …” His blank look makes me falter again. I wave to vaguely indicate the hallway, the school, the town, the world. “Don’t you still feel like you don’t really …”
“What? Fit in?”
“I mean … yes? No. Sort of.”
A mix of confusion and annoyance clouds his face. Why did I think this was a good idea?
“I don’t feel like that.”
“Okay, um, I’m sorry.”
“That was a long time ago. You know? I mean, we haven’t hung out in, like …” He is so weirded out, he can’t even finish the sentence.
“Yeah, no, totally,” I mumble, backing away.
He shrugs. “So, I’m good now. Plenty o’ friends. Thanks for your concern, though.”
My face feels like it’s on fire. I back off and hurry away. In the back of my head, though, I’m thinking, Nobody who has plenty of friends would say “plenty o’ friends.”
Just when I’m about to speed-walk around the corner, I glance back at Gideon, and with my head turned, I smack directly into Ashley.
“Oh, sorry,” I mumble.
“No, I am soooo sorry,” she says, knitting her on-trend thick eyebrows with overwrought concern, and continues down the hall. She has less of a walk than an easily imitable busty glide, leading with the kind of boobs that prompt dim boys like Mike Neckekis to deem her “really smart” or “really funny.”
And then she takes a running leap into Gideon’s arms.